Your chapter on whether God is violent or not was helpful. However, this is something that I really continue to struggle with…the biggest issues I have are how violent and at times selective God seems to be…why does God put evil spirits on people and harden people’s hearts…
First, it’s so good you’re reading through the whole Bible. It’s dangerous, I think, when we only hear the Bible in little tiny chunks that fit into sermons. We miss so much of the big sweep … and we miss many of the big tensions as well, as you’re seeing now.
On God putting an evil spirit on Saul, or hardening Pharoah’s heart, etc., theologians deal with this in a number of ways. What has been most helpful to me is to realize that in the ancient world, there is little consciousness of intermediate causality. If lightning strikes, God (or the gods) did it – because there’s little understanding of intermediate causes like atmospheric convection, heat transfer, cold fronts, static electricity, and the like. I suppose calling natural disasters “acts of God” continues this tradition.
If people in the Bible see things in a certain way – no intermediate causality – does that obligate us to reject any other explanation? I’d say no. Just as we no longer feel obligated to say the sun circles the earth – even though this is clearly the language of the Bible, reflecting the “world view” of the time – I don’t feel obligated to ignore intermediate causality when I interpret Biblical language and thought forms and seek to be guided by them in today’s world. I might also add that sometimes, the biblical storytellers seem to be trying to “save” God … If Pharoah hardens his own heart, it sounds like God isn’t omnipotent. So they say that God hardens Pharoahs heart, thus solving that problem, but creating another. (In their day, the danger of giving Pharoah too much credit may have been worth the risk … but today, making God responsible for evil seems like the greater risk.)
We – all of us – do the same sort of thing today, again and again – trying to solve one problem and unintentionally creating other ones. That’s one reason I recommend reading the Bible as a library, and not giving any single text the final word … as if it were an article in a constitution.
On Saul getting a bad rap, yes, I agree. The Bible presents human beings with much more maturity and nuance than we often do … We (especially we Americans) love to paint the world into simple good guys and bad guys, forgetting that the bad guys have a lot of good, and the good guys a lot of bad. If some Biblical passages seem “primitive” to us in terms of intermediate causality, they’re often far more mature and nuanced in terms of human nature than many of our modern preachers are.
Again, if we let the Bible be a library, then we can let various authors/storytellers have their perspectives and vested interests. Part of our job as wise readers is to discern those vested interests, and take account of them in our interpretation.
This sensitivity to vested interests in the Bible helps us, I think, when looking at political issues today. There are upsides and downsides to this or that immigration bill, tax bill, energy bill, whatever. People usually simply take sides – fer it or agin it. But the Biblical library teaches us that there’s a higher perspective, where we can learn to see both the upsides and downsides of all sides … That way, even if we are for something, we won’t be naive about its downsides, and vice versa.